Arousal Processes and Media Effects

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"Arousal" refers to a state of physical excitation that accompanies all emotions that are linked to action. The biological function of such excitation is to energize the organism for a bout of activity.According to the classic fight-flight theory, arousal occurs when someone is confronted with danger and readies the person for escape (flight) or attack by vigorous action (fight), thereby increasing the chance for survival in either case. In modern times, arousal in response to signs of danger (or incentive opportunities) may prove largely nonadaptive (i.e., fail to serve safety and wellness), or even foster counterproductive reactions, because vigorous action often does not lead to an advantageous resolution. Although the fight-flight response is generally an outdated reaction, the tendency to become aroused is nonetheless triggered when people are faced with numerous situations that relate to coping with danger (or the attainment of incentives)—or when exposed to media representations of such situations.

Cognition-Excitation Interplay

Stanley Schachter (1964) focused attention on the unique interplay of cognition (i.e., thought) and arousal in the experiencing of emotion. He proposed that arousal is essentially the same in all emotions and that cognition, by furnishing instant appraisals of circumstances, lets individuals understand the emotions that are being experienced. In this conceptualization, arousal (or excitation) is blind to the hedonic valence of emotions (i.e., to their degree of pleasure or displeasure) and simply intensifies each and every emotion. Through intero-and exteroceptive feedback (e.g., muscle tension, heavy breathing, heart pounding, palm sweating), individuals have some cognizance of the intensity of their various emotions.

Excitation Transfer

Based on the premise that arousal is not emotion specific, Dolf Zillmann (1996) developed an excitation-transfer theory that considers summations and alternative integrations of sympathetic excitation. In this theory, he suggests that excitations caused by different sources combine to intensify both the feelings and the actions that are cognitively determined and directed by circumstances in the immediate environment of an individual. For example, a person who steps on a snake in the grass is bound to get excited and appraise the reaction as fear, possibly intertwined with disgust. Recognizing that the snake is a rubber dummy planted by a mischievous child, the person is bound to experience a quasi-instantaneous reappraisal of the emotional reaction as anger that, after a while, is likely to turn into amusement. These later reactions, due to the fact that chemically mediated excitation (i.e., mediation by the systemic release of catecholamines that function as neurotransmitters and whose effect diminishes only slowly) cannot decay instantly and lingers for some time, are intensified by residual excitation from the initial fear reaction. In principle, residual excitation from any kind of prior emotion will "artificially" intensify the experience of any kind of subsequent emotion.

The transfer of residual excitation into subsequent emotional reactions is particularly relevant for the emotional experience of fictional and non-fictional events of audiovisual media presentations. The reason for this is the compact presentation of emotion-inducing scenes. Because the material that is not immediately relevant to the emotional core of the presentation is eliminated by editing, the elicitation of different emotional experiences comes closer together. This condition is ideal for the intensification of emotional reactions because of the transfer of residual excitation from preceding arousal-inducing events.

Dramaturgy of Transfer

Excitation-transfer theory has been used to explain the seemingly paradoxical enjoyment of drama that predominantly features distressing events. For example, the enjoyment of satisfying resolutions of suspenseful drama has been found to be more intense when the preceding events of the drama are more torturous. It also has been observed that the more frightening the preresolution portions of drama, the more it is likely to be enjoyed in the end. Even tragic drama tends to be more enjoyed when the initially featured suffering is more severe. Residual excitation from hedonically negative (i.e., displeasing) experiences is thus capable of intensifying subsequent enlightenment and euphoric experiences. This relationship, moreover, has been ascertained for the enjoyment of competitive sports. Suspenseful, close contests tend to trigger more intense enjoyment than lopsided contests. Hedonically reversed emotion intensification is in evidence as well. Residues from exposure to pleasant erotic scenes, for example, have been found to intensify experiences of anger and hostile inclinations. However, emotion facilitation also can occur within hedonically compatible conditions. The interspersion of pleasant sexual imagery in music videos, for example, has been found to intensify the enjoyment of the music. The excitation-transfer theory thus can be seen as a dramaturgic script for the manipulation of emotional reactions to drama and other media presentations by specific arrangements of narrative elements (cf. Zillmann, 1996).

Outside fiction, transfer effects have been observed in advertising. Residual excitation from pleasant and unpleasant experiences was found to enhance the appeal of products and activate purchase intentions. Regarding news programs, highly arousing images of catastrophes like famine and epidemics are known to move viewers to various civic actions.

Arousal Seeking

Marvin Zuckerman (1979) examined individual differences in excitement seeking and attempted to explain them as a result of varying needs for neuroendocrine stimulation. People who had a self-proclaimed high need for excitement were found to be drawn more strongly than others to sex-laden and violent, even morbid, media entertainments. They also showed a stronger preference for contact sports and hard-rock music, whether live or featured in the media.

Mood Management

Zillmann (1988), in the context of mood-management theory, proposed that media content is selectively used to maximize arousal that is pleasantly experienced (eustress) and to minimize arousal that is unpleasantly experienced (dis-tress). This implies that the content selections serve to move from distress to eustress, rather than to maximize arousal regardless of hedonistic considerations (i.e., pleasure-displeasure). Consistent with this proposal are findings showing that stressed persons, compared to relaxed ones, are drawn to media programming that holds a promise of cheering them up, such as comedies, while avoiding programming that does not hold this promise, such as conflict-laden news reports.

Considering arousal specifically, it has been observed that understimulated, bored people prefer exciting programs over relaxing programs, whereas overstimulated, stressed people prefer relaxing programs over exciting programs. Such choices, by bringing "down" people "up" and "up" people "down," serve excitatory homeostasis (i.e., the return to excitatory normalcy).

Habituation of Arousal

Excitatory habituation refers to the waning of arousal reactions that results from repeated, extensive exposure to particular stimuli. Media portrayals of violent and sexual events, for example, may initially evoke strong emotions, but as the excitatory response habituates (i.e., diminishes) with repeated and potentially massive exposure, emotional reactions become shallow and may vanish altogether. This phenomenon is often discussed as desensitization.

There is no doubt that habituation to violent and sexual media presentations occurs. It has been demonstrated, for example, that prolonged exposure to erotica diminishes arousal reactions until they become negligible. On occasion, desensitization is intended. For example, adolescents seek it in response to horror in order to prove their toughness (i.e., emotional insensitivity) to peers. As a rule, however, strong emotional reactivity is the object of most entertainments, often also of informative, nonfictional programs.

Arousal Retention

On the premise that both curiosity about, and the enjoyment of, media presentations tend to increase with the degree to which these presentations are emotionally engaging, techniques are sought to counteract the excitatory habituation to media offerings. As self-imposed media abstinence is not an option, the remedy lies in the employment of novel and potentially stronger material. A habituation-based shift to unfamiliar material has been demonstrated for erotica. It was found that consumers, after excitatory habituation to common fare, selected exposure to depictions of unusual sexual behaviors, apparently in efforts to sustain the intensity of pleasurable reactions (cf. Zillmann, 1991). More generally, this shift is prominent in the escalation of dramatic media content toward increasingly graphic displays of increasingly uncommon violent and sexual behaviors. It is also evident in the growing success of reality programs with extreme, shocking content. Reality programs ensure strong arousal reactions because the depicted events cannot be dismissed as fictional.

See also:Advertising Effects; Mood Effects and Media Exposure; Pornography; Television Broadcasting, Programming and; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


Schachter, Stanley. (1964). "The Interaction of Cognitive and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State." In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 1, ed. Leonard Berkowitz. New York: Academic Press.

Zillmann, Dolf. (1988). "Mood Management through Communication Choices." American Behavioral Scientist 31(3):327-340.

Zillmann, Dolf. (1991). "The Logic of Suspense and Mystery." In Responding to the Screen: Reception and Reaction Processes, eds. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Zillmann, Dolf. (1994). "The Regulatory Dilemma Concerning Pornography." In Problems and Conflicts between Law and Morality in a Free Society, eds. James E. Wood and Derek Davis. Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Zillmann, Dolf. (1996). "Sequential Dependencies in Emotional Experience and Behavior." In Emotion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, eds. Robert D. Kavanaugh, Betty Zimmerberg, and Steven Fein. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Zuckerman, Marvin. (1979). Sensation Seeking: Beyond the Optimal Level of Arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dolf Zillmann